We had a chance to sit down and play some of the new games (Rocket Riot, Crackdown 2: Project Sunburst, The Harvest, ilomilo, Bejeweled, Max and the Magic Marker, and Uno) as well as check out the Live feature-set, and here are our first impressions:
We'll preface this by saying that both the hardware and software we demoed was still unfinished (the latter being the Samsung Taylor dev phone and the LG QWERTY model we broke news of on the Engadget Show). Regardless, the gameplay for the arcade titles seemed excellent, with frame rates holding fast even during graphically intensive 3D sequences (such as the chaotic, scattered-pixel play of Rocket Riot). The Harvest, while a bit familiar to our eyes, still showed the graphic promise of the platform. Gameplay was definitely well suited to a touchscreen device, though Microsoft's Kevin Unangst told us that developers could target controls for both touch and QWERTY-equipped phones (provided that a touch version was always present). The screen response seemed accurate and sensitive, reacting quickly to our input. Particularly in the Crackdown title -- a tower defense game "set in the Crackdown universe" -- pinch zooming, rotation, and finger tracking was excellent.
Besides just standard gaming, it looks like Microsoft will try and leverage some other components of the platform. In the aforementioned Crackdown 2: Project Sunburst, the game utilizes Bing maps to create levels (not unlike the PSN title The Last Guy), and logic in the software is able to recognize things like roads for enemies to make their way down. A unique concept for sure, and the kind of thinking we hope we'll see more of on this platform. Though we didn't get to see a lot of titles (we particularly would have liked to see something like Castlevania), the polish and speed of the games we played was definitely competitive with iPhone or Palm Pre gaming.
We didn't get a chance to peruse the Live Marketplace because the phones were offline, but we did get to play around with cached elements, and we felt right at home. Updating and tweaking your avatar was fast and straightforward, as was finding friends and checking up on achievements or messages. Unfortunately, for the launch of Windows Phone 7 there won't be any true multiplayer options besides turn-based games, though Kevin seemed to indicate that head-to-head gaming (whether over a local or wide network) was in the roadmap. It only makes sense considering this is Xbox Live we're talking about, and it seems like something that would have been baked in from the beginning. We may be a little spoiled from the variety of multiplayer titles on the iOS platform, but that was one knock against Microsoft here. One other small issue we noticed was that game load times seemed long -- a little too long. Again, Microsoft says things are still unfinished, so we're hoping this is a side effect of debugging and non-optimized builds.
All in all, it's a promising picture for Microsoft. The company has the clout, the community, and most importantly the cash to pull this off, but as with all modern smartphone platforms, success can't be judged on one aspect alone. To make Windows Phone 7 really work, the folks in Redmond will have to hit the right note on not just gaming, but the basic user experience, hardware, applications, and carrier partnerships. Based on what we've seen of Xbox Live on these devices, we think the company can check at least one of those boxes off.